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Shan Tao Yun is an exiled Chinese national and a former Beijing investigator, on parole from a Tibetan gulag. One day, he is ferrying a corpse on muleback over the slopes of Chomolungma—Mount Everest—at the request of a local wisewoman who says the gods have appointed this task to him, when he encounters what looks like a traffic accident.
A government bus filled with imprisoned Tibetan monks has overturned. Then Shan hears gunfire. Two women in an approaching sedan have been killed. One is the Chinese minister of tourism; the other, a blonde Westerner, organizes climbing expeditions. Though she dies in his arms, Shan is later met with denials that this foreigner is dead.
Shan must find the murderer, for it may be the only hope he has for saving his son, Ko—imprisoned in a Chinese “yeti factory” where men are routinely driven mad . . .
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NO ONE EVER died on Mount Chomolungma, the sherpas always told Shan Tao Yun when he was sent to retrieve a body. A man might freeze so hard his fingers would snap like kindling, his bones might be shattered in a thousand- foot fall, but the mother goddess mountain — Everest to Westerners — captured their spirits, keeping them alive and within her grip for her own purpose. They weren't exactly alive, but they weren't dead in the traditional sense, an old sherpa had warned him, as if Shan should expect the corpse he conveyed to be summoned back up the mountain at any time. More than one of Shan's new friends in the climbing camps insisted that in the winds blowing from the summit they sometimes heard the voices of those who had died years earlier. Shan glanced at the snow-capped peak as he soberly tightened the rope fastening his canvas-wrapped burden to the pack mule, lightly resting his hand for a moment on the roundness that was the dead man's shoulder. This one had been a friend. If Shan heard the voice of Tenzin Nuru on the wind he would recognize it.
He had taken several steps down the trail when the lead rope jerked him backward. The old mule, his steady companion on such treks, refused to move. Shan studied the high, windblown landscape warily, trusting completely in the animal's instincts. The Tibetans always gave him the same mule, a graceful long-legged creature, whose bright intelligent eyes followed Shan attentively as he recited ancient Chinese poems during their descents with the dead. Its ears were back now, its head cocked.
He heard the sound of hooves on the loose gravel a moment before a small horse, saddled but riderless, burst over the low rise ahead of them. Rock and roll music blared from a battered tape player suspended on a string from the pommel; an old bolt action rifle dragged in the dirt, hanging on a broken strap. Shan's heart sank, then he leapt for the reins to stop the horse and grabbed the gun, deftly popping out the magazine and tossing it into the rocks. He glanced quickly about for a side trail to flee down. Then, finding none, tossed his coat over his cargo, calmed the horse by stroking its neck, and shut off the music.
A moment later a man in a tattered gray uniform trotted over the rise, panting, spitting a quick curse as he recognized Shan. He paused and straightened his tunic, awkwardly accepted the rifle from Shan, then turned the weapon around and aimed it at Shan. "In the name of the People's Republic I arrest you," the man said in a weary voice.
Shan stroked the horse's neck. "On what charges today, Constable Jin?"
The constable, a Tibetan in his mid-thirties who had assumed a Chinese name when he'd put on the Chinese uniform, eyed the mule's cargo uncertainly. "Murder?" he offered in a hopeful tone. Jin Bodai did not work for the dreaded Public Security Bureau but for the county, as a law enforcement functionary whose main job consisted of checking on permits and writing up traffic violations.
Shan watched patiently as Jin tucked his carbine under one arm then untied the outer rope on the mule's bundle, exposing Tenzin's head. The constable lifted the head by the hair, bent closer to study it, then dropped it, and looked back at Shan with a quizzical expression.
"Any doctor," Shan explained in a steady voice, "even those in Tingri county, would tell you this man died at least two days ago. A dozen people could testify I was with them two days ago, in town, working at the warehouse."
Jin, more peeved than ever, jabbed the gun toward Shan again. "Still," he ventured, "a man without his papers, an illegal carrying a corpse. It would be enough to get me off this damned mountain at least."
"You lost your ammunition, Constable." Hardly a week went by when the two of them did not spar, but more than once Shan had rescued Jin by preparing paperwork needed for China's vast law enforcement bureaucracy.
Jin opened the bolt of the gun, saw the hole where the magazine should have been then cursed again, in the tone of a crestfallen child. "A piece of junk, like everything else they give me," he groused. The gun, like his uniform and nearly everything else used by his small office in Shogo town, was a hand-me-down from the Public Security Bureau.
"Illegal transportation of a corpse might work," Shan suggested. "Even unlicensed disposal of the dead."
The constable brightened. "I arrest you for illegal transport of a corpse."
"But not this day," Shan continued in a fatigued voice. The mule nudged him, as if reminding him of their task. "Not this corpse."
Jin sighed, lowering the rifle. "Why not?"
Shan pulled a bottle of water from one of the packs, poured some into his cupped hand for the mule to drink. "Because this sherpa is from Nepal. Take us in and you'll have to call Public Security, who will begin asking how a foreigner got across the border in your district without papers. A dead foreigner. Then there's a whole other set of paperwork for international shipment of bodies. You'll spend a week filling out papers, and you won't have me to help if I am behind bars."
"Then," Shan said, "you'll spend the rest of the season dealing with all those who complain about how bad it is for business to suddenly have policemen flooding the Westerners' climbing camps."
The constable worked his tongue in his cheek. "Better than chasing this damned nag up and down the mountains."
The mule gave Shan another impatient nudge. It seemed to be remembering, as Shan did, that they still had miles to go before turning the body over to villagers from Tumkot, where Tenzin's kin waited for his body. "Then you won't do it," Shan said with a tinge of shame, "because if you hold me up any longer I will not return to work on time and in this county the man I work for is the senior Tibetan member of the Party."
The constable sagged. He extracted a crumpled pack of cigarettes, lit one as he settled onto a flat rock then studied Shan with a suspicious air. "There's a name for people like you on the other side of the ranges," he observed as he exhaled a column of smoke. "Untouchables. Disposers of the dead and other garbage. The lowest caste of a low society. You're Chinese. You're educated. Why do you let them do this to you?"
"I prefer to think of it as a sacred trust." Shan extracted two apples from a pouch on the mule's harness, offered one to the horse, the other to his mule. As he did so he studied the equipment hanging from Jin's saddle, noting for the first time the heavy ammunition belt tied around rain gear at the back of the saddle, beside the portable radio Jin usually left switched off in the field. "What particular war did you come up here to fight, Constable?"
Jin frowned. "I left headquarters to check out a report of stolen climbing equipment. Ropes and harnesses taken from the base camp two days ago."
"I was stopped by a Public Security lieutenant with a truckload of troops. A security alert has been declared, he announced. Minister Wu, head of tourism, is traveling up the road to the base camp today. So the lieutenant changed my orders."
"They didn't give you all that ammunition because of tourists."
Jin inhaled deeply on his cigarette, studying Shan, no doubt weighing how much he needed Shan to navigate the bureaucracy. He shrugged. "Since the road was going to be closed they decided to do a fidelity raid, at Sarma gompa, one of the little monasteries up the valley. Just one bus, with an escort of knobs," he explained, using the common slang for soldiers of the Public Security Bureau.
Shan fought a shudder. After destroying nearly every monastery in the region decades earlier, Beijing had allowed a few of the surviving gompas to operate under the close supervision of the Bureau of Religious Affairs. One of the many tools that Religious Affairs used to keep the Tibetan monks closely leashed was forcing them to sign loyalty oaths to Beijing. Individual monks who refused lost their robes. But when entire groups refused to sign, it was considered an act of organized resistance to the government. They would be given one final chance to sign, then rounded up for imprisonment in Tibet's gulag. Shan closed his eyes a moment, fighting a flood of wrenching memories from his own years of imprisonment in one of those camps.
After a moment he scanned the slopes above them. They were empty. There had been families with small herds of sheep and yaks when he had passed through on the way to the Chomolungma base camp the day before. After fifty years of living with the Chinese army, many Tibetans seemed to be able to sense soldiers from miles away.
"I don't understand why they do it," Jin said in a more conversational tone. "How many does it make this season?"
Shan turned and saw that the constable was gazing at the body on the mule. "This will be three I've taken down." Although trucks and utility vehicles could make it to base camp, Tumkot, the village that provided most of the porters, was very traditional. It had no monks, but it had an astrologer who often played that role, and she had told the villagers the deities wanted them to keep their dead out of Chinese trucks. Later, for reasons Shan still did not understand, she had foretold that he was the one who would convey the bodies. "They say the mother mountain is angry this year."
"Angry?" Jin smirked, streaming two jets of smoke out his nostrils. "I'd say she's become a bitch with a feud against the world." He gestured toward the dead man. "Damned fools. They must have a death wish going up there. Acting like they're gods, thinking they have the right to be at the top of the planet."
Shan laid his hand on the back of the dead man. He had not known the other dead sherpas he retrieved from Everest and had only briefly worked with the ever-cheerful Tenzin, but he had developed a strange affinity for all of them. The old Tibetans would say their ghosts were befriending him. "They just carry the bags of those who would be gods," Shan quietly corrected, "so they can feed their families." His gaze drifted down the trail as the mule nudged him again. "How soon are they coming?" he asked. Not far below, the trail passed within fifty yards of the road. He could ill afford to be stopped by Public Security with an unexplained body.
The constable's expression hardened at Shan's reference to the knobs. He tossed his cigarette into the rocks with a peeved glance, as if Shan had ruined its enjoyment, then rose to mount the horse. "Soon enough," he complained.
"Don't play music when you ride," Shan suggested as the policeman awkwardly tried to mount with the rifle over his shoulder. "It frightens the horse. And don't always stay on his back. Tibetans walk beside their horses half the time, speaking with them."
Jin sneered at Shan and reached for the power switch on his tape player.
"It's a long walk home," Shan observed. The constable frowned again but did not touch the switch. He straightened, dug his heels into the horse and disappeared at a slow, stiff trot.
Twenty minutes later Shan stood in the shadow of a boulder and watched the cloud of dust that marked the passage of the bus, his gut tightening. He too had developed an instinct about Public Security. He found himself leaning forward, the way the small mountain animals did when they were about to leap away from an approaching predator. Forcing himself to keep watching as the cloud passed a tower of rock a quarter mile away, he glanced down as he realized his hand had clamped around his wrist, over his prison registration tattoo. He picked up the lead rope for the mule and had begun to slowly retreat when he felt an odd shaking at his feet, like a small earthquake. Then came a screech of metal, the sound of a tire bursting, followed by angry shouts, the flat crack of a pistol, and the frantic blowing of a whistle. He glanced at the mule, which had begun to graze on a clump of grass, then leaped down the trail toward the road.
Moments later he crouched at an outcropping, gazing down on a scene of chaos. A small military bus, designed to hold perhaps twenty prisoners, was wedged sideways in the narrow road, jammed between rock ledges on either side. The windshield was smashed. The front right wheel was flat, the bumper and fender above it crumpled where they had struck a column of rock that had fallen across the road. Other rocks from the apparent avalanche had smashed against the side of the bus, knocking in two of the wire-bound windows. A young Public Security soldier, probably the driver of the bus, sat against a rock, dazed, his head bleeding from where it had smashed the windshield. Only one other knob could be seen, racing into the rocks at the far side of the road, desperately sounding his whistle. The monks who had been imprisoned on the bus were escaping, except for one old man in a red robe who was bent over the injured driver.
Shan slid down the ledge and onto the road. The driver was losing consciousness, and the lama had torn a strip from his robe to tie around the soldier's bleeding head.
The old lama cocked his head as Shan approached. Shan did not know the man, but he knew well from his years in prison the weary smile and the calm, unafraid countenance. "You have done what you can do for him," Shan said to the lama, his words urgent. "Please go." He knew what the lama meant to do, and it filled Shan with dread. "By stepping off that bus, you escaped. It won't matter if they find you ten feet or ten miles away. I will tend him," he said, kneeling by the unconscious soldier. "You have no idea what they will do to you. Go to your friends, they need you more," he said as the lama lowered himself into the meditation position. "The soldiers will —" the lama cut off Shan's words by lifting a hand in a familiar gesture, an invitation to join in a mantra. Memories flashed through Shan's mind, of monks in his former prison beaten senseless with batons and pipes, of old Tibetans kicked in the jaw until their teeth fell out, of lamas gazing serenely as their executioners aimed pistols at their skulls. The lama offered a small, wise nod, then began a low, murmuring mantra aimed at the injured soldier, an invocation of the Medicine Buddha.
"Lha gyal lo," Shan offered in a tight voice as he retreated. Victory to the gods.
A patch of maroon flashed among the rocks fifty yards away. He sprinted toward it, finding three monks hiding, trembling with fear. "Away from the road!" he shouted, gesturing them toward the maze of outcroppings on the slope above. The soldiers would return at any moment. They would have batons and electric cattle prods with which to deliver stunning blows. He grabbed the wrist of the first monk he reached, a young Tibetan with a jagged scar on his chin, whose eyes flashed defiance as he jerked his arm away. "These are prison guards, they will not stray far from the road," Shan explained. "But they will call in border commandos in helicopters. Get to the high valleys," he urged. "Get out of your robes. You can't go back to your gompa. Stay with the shepherds, stay in the caves."
"We've done nothing wrong," the young monk protested. "Rinpoche is correct," he said, using the term for revered teacher as he nodded toward the old lama sitting by the road. "There is just a misunderstanding."
"There is no misunderstanding. You're bound for years in a Public Security prison." The other monks grabbed up the loose ends of their robes and began running up the slope.
The young monk took several hesitant steps toward the lama who was tending to the soldier. "I cannot leave him."
"They won't keep you together," Shan said to his back. "Go to him now and all it does is guarantee you will spend the next five years in a Chinese prison. They'll crush your prayer boxes, burn your robe."
The monk turned, anguish on his face. "I have heard of a Chinese who was a prisoner himself, who helps our people now. How are you called?"
"You don't want to know my name, and I don't want to know yours. Go." Shan insisted, pointing up the slope.
"But Rinpoche —"
Shan looked back to the lama, his heart rising in his throat. "The old ones in prison just consider themselves on a long hermitage. The best thing you can do for him is to flee, save yourself so you can keep being a monk. Spare him the pain of knowing he cost you your freedom."
The monk mouthed a silent prayer toward the lama, touched his empty wrist where his beads had been before the knobs tore them away, then sprinted up the slope.
Metallic whistles screeched from farther down the road, followed by sharp commands and a long anguished moan. Shan, fighting the panic rising within, surveyed the scene, spotting arcs of color among the debris of rocks on the slope above. A thick red climbing rope, a sling of black and yellow rope. He had found the stolen climbing equipment. Something rattled by his foot and he bent to retrieve a steel snaplink carabiner used with climbing ropes. He was looking up at the debris again, trying to decipher how the ropes had been used, when three loud cracks erupted from the ridge above him. Gunshots. He ran.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Lord Of Death"
Copyright © 2009 Eliot Pattison.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
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